Why did I bother debating Scott McKenna? Was it some kind of church politics, seeking to score theological points against the Church of Scotland? Was it just because I love arguing and a good theological rammie gets the blood circulating? Was it just another pathetic attempt at self-publicity – pick a fight and they will come running?
Insofar as it is possible to discern one’s own motives let me simply state that my only reason for debating Scott was to seek to bring the Gospel both to him and his congregation. I believe that what he teaches is from the pit of hell and that it condemns people to hell. Much as I hate things such as slavery, poverty and racism and would and do campaign against them both within and out with the church, I hate the teaching of a false gospel even more – because it takes away from the glory and beauty of Christ, and pulls people away from the One who is the answer. That is also why I write this article. It is not schadenfreude (delight in another’s suffering) and I pray to God that it is not self-exaltation or church politics. I believe with all my heart that Scotland’s greatest need is to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. And I believe that with 400,000 members and a significant number of evangelical preachers, the Church of Scotland is vital in that role. I went to the McKenna debate to speak up for traditional Church of Scotland (i.e. Biblical and Christian) teaching. The response has been very revealing.
An Open and Closed Discussion
Scott and I had hoped to have an open discussion with honesty and transparency, but the C of S establishment interfered. I have already written about their attempts to suppress the debate and the information about it being disseminated. I have already discussed the liberal reaction. The Scottgate Tapes – A Revealing Insight But it is the evangelical reaction, or more specifically the lack of evangelical reaction that reveals a great a deal about the current state of the Church of Scotland. What can we learn from this debacle?
1) The Scott McKenna type of liberalism is not the extreme freak show that evangelicals and others might want to believe.
It is actually fairly mainstream within the C of S. There is no chance of Scott being disciplined or called to account for his anti Church of Scotland views, despite his being a minister of the Church of Scotland. There are several reasons for this but one of them is simply that in one sense ministers like Scott are often ‘good’ ministers. They do nice funerals, nice pastoral visits and generally their congregations like them because they make them feel good. It almost seems that that the more liberal a minister is, the more likely his/her congregation is to be mainly elderly middle class women who think that he is lovely because he provides precisely what they want, (tradition, social care, company, the old hymns, a few wee stories, a pleasant voice, an impression of helping the poor, and an air of seemingly intelligent authority), and they don’t really care too much about the theology. Who cares if you preach the gospel as long as you can do a nice funeral?! Evangelicals don’t want to be perceived as the nasty bad fundamentalists, upsetting the nice minister with their doctrinaire preaching. And this is made all the more difficult when the liberal talks about ‘being one church together, but all on our different paths’. It all sounds so nice and tolerant. It is of course nonsense and easily deconstructed. But we are talking here about impression not truth; delusion not reality.
2) The Church of Scotland establishment is highly politicized, centralized and controlling.
They did not want the McKenna debate recorded not because ‘it would affect the fireside chat nature of the debate’, nor because they thought it was an aberration. They wanted the whole thing hushed up because they did not want to upset the unsophisticated ordinary Christians in the pew who don’t quite get the nuances of modern theology. They want to maintain the fiction that the Church of Scotland is still a home for biblical Christians as well as for those who deny the gospel. And they used some pretty underhand tactics to keep things quiet. It was dishonest, deceitful and disrespectful. And evangelical leaders know this. After I expressed surprise at the way I had been treated and how the Church sought to intimidate, then close down the debate, even to the extent of getting the tapes destroyed, a couple commented to me ‘What did you expect? We know how corrupt and bullying the whole show is”!
3) Many ordinary evangelicals are being led up the garden path either by our leaders or the lack of leadership.
There are new evangelical ministers within the C of S, but they have largely been shipped in from overseas or are fresh out of University (in some cases having experienced years of soul destroying teaching in disbelief) and don’t know what is really happening. In the past weeks I have met some from Brazil, South Africa, Australia and America. They are like lambs to the slaughter. One former C of S worker who returned to his native country wrote and told me his story of how the liberal establishment in the Presbytery stopped him from preaching and eventually drove him out in despair. A not uncommon story. I have met several who have crashed and burned because they did not realize that the unwritten laws of the Kirk (don’t upset the blue rinse brigade, don’t rock the boat, don’t challenge the culture) are more important than the Word of God.
Many ordinary members don’t have a clue either. In fact this is the reason that the C of S did not want the video out. Not because they disagree with Scott’s views, but because they know that within evangelical congregations, evangelical leaders will be reluctant to rock the boat by actually dealing with the heresies within their own denomination. But once an honest liberal like Scott puts his views on YouTube and someone like me points it out, then there is no hiding place. Ordinary Christians will see how deep the rot is. The Establishment told me that nothing should go on the Internet and anyway people don’t use social media! The trouble with social media for the control freaks is that it’s hard for them to control it. It is difficult for them to maintain the façade that Scott McKenna’s views are a liberal aberration on the extreme fringe of the church. So instead they seek to suppress and then denigrate anyone who dares to challenge their narrative. Edinburgh Presbytery were sent at least one letter from a life long C of S couple who, horrified at the original video, asked what the Presbytery would do. The answer they got was nothing. And so like many others they are now considering leaving. Indeed today I got an e-mail from a longstanding member in Edinburgh who has had enough and just decided to leave. And so the Establishment tries to put a lid on it.
4) And herein lies the problem for the evangelical leadership within the C of S. What do they say? What do they do?
They know that if their people get wind of how corrupt the whole show is and how far down the road of anti-gospel heresy the church has gone, their narrative of ‘just one more push and revival is round the corner’ , or ‘the C of S is the only show in town”, will sound increasingly hollow. And they know that even if they do speak out there is no chance that the C of S will discipline or deal with any heresy (unless it is a heresy which involved ecclesiastical order or money!). So they keep quiet. Sure they may talk to one another, write ‘papers’ and reassure each other about what the Bible actually teaches, but in terms of having any kind of prophetic ministry or church discipline, that is long gone.
As several ordinary C of S Christians pointed out, ‘Why are you debating with Scott? Why not one of our own leaders?” That indeed is the question. And when the debate happened and when the heresy was openly and publically declared, why has there been no move by evangelicals to have this dealt with? Why did no one speak out in favour of what I was saying on their behalf? After all, if they went to the Assembly over the Aberdeen gay minister partnership issue, is not the heart of the Gospel, (what Paul calls of first importance) even more important and worth fighting for?
I hear continually evangelicals say that they are called to stay in and fight. All I ask is what does that mean? Because at the moment it looks a lot like the only fighting that is being done, is to keep other evangelicals from leaving.
5) The problem is more than just a passive acquiescence. The fact is that the Liberal Establishment is using some evangelicals to try and keep the troops in order.
Here is how it works. Evangelicals are invited to the table. They are given positions of authority and power, on the condition that they accept that the Church of Scotland is a broad church and that they must remain ‘neutral’ on theological issues. They cannot however remain neutral on ecclesiastical politics or publicity – that is part of their job. It doesn’t ultimately matter if an elder or minister believes the Gospel or not, what matters is that they belong to the organisation and do not go against its administrative and financial procedures. Thus you end up with the situation that if a minister denies that Christ died for our sins it is acceptable, but if he says that he does not believe in ordaining women elders, or that money should not be sent to central funds, he will be disciplined. It is the antithesis of the NT Church.
What disturbs me is how much some evangelicals have bought into this. (Thankfully not all). I think of the evangelical who told his elders that if they were not on board with the C of S they should just get out. Another who told a concerned and worried congregation that if they were not prepared just to accept SSM then there would be no room for them. So much for the mixed economy! The deal is that evangelicals are allowed to believe and preach the gospel, as long as we don’t make it a big deal in the church!
Some evangelicals told me that the plan was to get evangelical influence within the corridors of power and thus be salt and light. Well that has both succeeded and failed. Oh yes, evangelicals are in positions of power – but at what price? According to some within Scott’s congregation, on the Saturday after the McKenna debate (that unfortunately he was not able to attend due to illness), the current Moderator, who is a good, kind and gracious man, visited the Mayfield/Salisbury Kirk Session. I find that a little hard to believe. Why was a visit from the moderator required? Was it just a happy coincidence? Was it to read the riot act and say that such heresy would not be permitted in the Church? Or was it to reassure the Session that their minister had the backing of the Church and not to worry because any concern would be sidelined and marginalized?
6) We need to be aware of the particular bear traps that await evangelicals.
- There are of course the legalists who, unless you cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ of their particular theology or cultural identity, will damn you without hesitation. For them the liberals are not the real enemy. The real enemy is the brother or sister closest to them.
- Then there are the liberals – and how embarrassing that we now have to speak about ‘liberal’ evangelicals; the ones who like the songs, the ethos, the social works, the passion but just want to miss out the bad bits of the bible, judgement and anything else that doesn’t quite fit with our ‘oh so nice culture.’ These are the ones who see evangelicalism as just one of the many tribes within Christianity, rather than the gospel itself.
- Then there are the pietists. They take prayerfulness seriously, and the Word of God seriously, and a particular understanding of the fruit of the Spirit seriously, but they struggle to ground any of it in the reality of this world, or the realities of spiritual warfare. Their message is one of retreat and defeat, or at least a resigned sighing until the Lord returns. They will just get on in their own wee corner with the work God has called them to.
- Finally there are our friends the charismatics, believing in the power of the Spirit, the coming Revival, the victory of the Kingdom, and your ‘perfect church life, now’. They have no time for such peripheral trifles as church politics, ecclesiology or doctrine….its time to get with the Spirit. Of course these are all caricatures and ones in which I recognise a little bit of myself.
The whole situation is so depressing that, like Luther, I cry: “I had utterly despaired had not Christ been head of the church” And there is the solution. I believe in Jesus. I believe he is the Saviour who died for the sins of the world. And I also believe that he is the Head of the Church, which is his body. So everything then comes back to only one question – what does Jesus, as the head of the church want for his church?
7) The answer is straightforward. He wants his church to grow. He died so that he might save people from themselves, from Hell, from religion and from all the principalities and powers of this world. He is not interested in our structures, politics and personality clashes. He only sees the glory and beauty of his Bride and he wants to add to her number and to continue to purify and prepare here in the furnace of affliction, the confusion human sinfulness and the darkness of this world. Therefore he wants his ministers to be preachers, prophets and not politicians. There is no neutrality when it comes to the Gospel. Which is why the silence from evangelicals within the Kirk over the McKenna debate is stunning. Why? How can you possibly be neutral on this issue?
John Knox has something to say about this….
“… you … may lawfully require … that they provide for you true preachers and that they expel such as under the names of pastors devour and destroy the flock … And if in this point your superiors be negligent…you may provide true teachers for yourselves…
“And if you think that you are innocent, because you are not the chief actors of such iniquity, you are utterly deceived. For God does not only punish the chief offenders, but with them does he damn the consenters to iniquity (Rom1:32); and all are judged to consent, who,knowing (the) impiety committed, give no testimony that the same displeases them.”
If evangelicals are serious about ‘fighting’ then two things need to happen.
- Firstly at a formal ecclesiastical church discipline level, complaints should be brought through the Church courts against those who deny what the Bible says itself is ‘of first importance’.
- Secondly at a Gospel level evangelicals should challenge and ignore the administrative and parish structures of the Church.
This is a necessary evil because a greater evil has occurred – the challenge and ignoring of the Gospel within those parishes. McCheyne advocated this:
“It is confessed that many of our ministers to not preach the gospel – alas! Because they know it not. Yet they have complete control over their pulpits, and may never suffer the truth to be heard there during their whole incumbency. And yet our church consigns these parishes to their tender mercies for perhaps fifty years, without a sigh! Should not certain men be ordained as evangelists, with full power to preach in every pulpit of their district – faithful, judicious, lively preachers, who may go from parish to parish, and thus carry life into many a dead corner?”.
Instead of making reassuring trips to congregations where the Gospel is denied, evangelicals should be debating, proclaiming, discussing and evangelizing within the parishes of those who reject the Gospel. Instead of just writing papers defending doctrines to ourselves that we already believe, we need to get the salt out of the saltshaker!
8) Maybe its time for evangelical leaders within the Church of Scotland to stop the pretence of being a biblical Presbyterian denomination?
Maybe its time to accept the situation as it really is?
Another Robertson, who I assume is a C of S office bearer, sent me the following blog. It’s worth quoting his last words in full. You can get the whole blog here.
He concludes by saying:
The Kirk is often recognised as broad in outlook, but are there limits to that breadth? Our Constitution indicates that there are. Our liberty of opinion is limited to matters not considered core Christian doctrines. If, despite the bluster and diatribe, David Robertson is correct that the C of S is accepting the ‘brazen’ rejection of Christian fundamentals from our pulpits, then can we really continue the pretence that we have a core theology?
Probably this is simply stating what many have known for years. However, in that case, why do we continue to require ordinands and inductees to affirm a confession of faith when as an institution we are content for them to do so with their fingers crossed?
If there is any truth in these musings, it does not necessarily mean the C of S is finished. But it may require that we consider revising our Constitution. We may need to formally recognise that we are not united by fundamental Christian doctrines. We are not united by a shared understanding of the identity of Jesus Christ, the nature of the Gospel, or the mission of the Church.
What does unite us today? Essentially it is our bureaucracy and legal structure; our shared councils, committees, resources, administration and courts. Some may believe a church with no foundational Christian theology is anathema; it has ceased to be a church. But this might be more honest than continuing to insist that individuals commit to a Constitution which the institution can no longer affirm.
I could not have put it better myself. It may be that there are some evangelicals who can live with being part of a denomination that just has the outward bureaucratic structure, and then seek to build their own congregations within that. I wish them well. For me it is anathema. It has ceased to be a church, in any biblical sense. But it may be that others will consider that their local church is just the biblical one and they can forget about the rest of the denomination.
9) Evangelical Leaders need to give clear and honest guidance to their people. In other words they need to provide leadership.
Providing biblical teaching is not much use if it does not lead to good works and biblical leadership. You would be amazed how many messages I get from ordinary C of S members who are struggling because they feel that their leadership is not providing leadership. They recognise that conferences, papers and yet another evangelical grouping does not really cut it. They want to know what is happening and what can be done. They want open discussion and not church politics and things hid in a corner. And they, like me, find it strange that a Free Church minister is debating and discussing on these issues, not one of their own.
I read the following from Tim Challies this week. The challenge is for evangelicals to ask whether this is right and how it applies to the current situation in Scotland.
Here are four situations in which the Bible tells you that you must leave a church.
- If the teaching is heretical (Galatians 1:7-9). If the leaders of a church are teaching what is outright heresy, you must separate yourself from that church. Staying to fight the battle is likely to make less of a statement than separating yourself from the church and its leaders, declaring them the heretics they are. The Bible declares that they are accursed, that they are anathema. Of course before you do this, be sure that what they are teaching truly is heresy and not merely something you disagree with.
- If the leaders tolerate error from those who teach (Romans 16:17). We are called to separate ourselves from leaders who tolerate unbiblical alternatives to the doctrines that are most fundamental to the faith. These people, in allowing such teaching to stand, cause division. God demands that you remove yourself from such a church.
- If there is utter disregard for biblical church discipline (1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6,14). If a church refuses to call its people to the Bible’s standard of holy living and if it refuses to exercise church discipline, you must remove yourself from that church. A church that tolerates blatant sin is no true church at all. My wife and I once had to leave a church for this very reason—the church refused to discipline a man and woman who were living together as husband and wife even though they were not married.
- If the church is marked by utter hypocrisy (2 Timothy 3:5). This passage refers to a particular kind of hypocrisy in which the church has the appearance of being marked by godliness and yet denies that the Holy Spirit is the true sources of this godliness. It is happy to look like it is Spirit-led and Spirit-empowered and yet it is actually a mockery of God in that the leaders deny his power and presence.
Reformed churches have typically spoken of three marks of a true church: the faithful preaching of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments and church discipline. We can find each of these represented above. If these marks are missing, if there is gross hypocrisy or heresy, if there is no demand for holiness among the leaders or membership, if there is error being tolerated by those who preach, the Bible tells you to separate yourself from that church.
10) Final point (for now)….I realise that this is an incredibly hard thing to wrestle with.
I have a great deal of sympathy with those who feel they are called to stay in the C of S, look after their flocks and fight the good fight. I hope that those who have left, and those who remain outwith will do what we can to pray for, help and assist them. But I do believe that the time has gone for the quiet infiltration approach, or the wishful pietism of the ‘God will turn it around’, or the head in the sand ‘small corner’ defence. If you are going to fight within the C of S you are going to need all the help you can get and I for one will do what I can to help. But I think there are an increasing number of ordinary Christians who have had enough and are leaving. Maybe evangelical leaders should lead them? TINA (there is no alternative) no longer applies. There are several alternatives for those who leave and wish to be a part of a biblical church. I find it interesting that the most common testimony I have heard from people who have gone through the trauma of leaving a Kirk where they have been born, bred and born again is that of relief and freedom. Sometimes you don’t realise how oppressive an institution can be until you leave it!
What about those of us who are not part of the C of S and those of us who have left?
We have a solemn, serious and joyful responsibility. We are not here to be the anti-C of S. We are not here to denigrate those of our brothers and sisters who decide to remain. But we are to seize the many opportunities within Scotland to plant and revitalise churches. We need thousands more.
On November the 1st St Peters will be starting the new Grace Church in Montrose. We have had a desire for many years to plant a church in that needy area and so far have not managed. But because of a combination of circumstances, including the debacle within the C of S, there are now a group of Christians (most of them now ex C of S) who are ready to begin. When we met with them we said that we were not interested in being the alternative to the C of S church. We wanted to be a new gospel centred and orientated church. They loved that.
May the Lord grant his prosperity on this new venture and may he multiply the number of such gospel churches, whatever the denomination. That should be our only aim.
Soli Deo Gloria